In 2008, Bay Area writers Caroline M. Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper founded Learning to Eat, a blog about family food, where they write about feeding their families—everyday meals, holiday traditions, cocktails, appetizers, even junk food. But they also consider bigger questions: Does family dinner, every night, really matter? Who cooks, cleans up, and sets the table? Why is Caroline’s family vegetarian? Should Lisa serve meat?
The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013)—an anthology of original essays about how we learn, and relearn, to eat—continues this conversation. In 28 original essays, food writers, parents, journalists, and chefs—including Chris Malcomb and Phyllis Grant from our own East Bay—consider the people, events, and circumstances that have forged their relationship to food.
Here, “Recipe,” an essay by Berkeley writer Grant:
Works best if your husband is out of town on business, your life feels barely manageable, a tenth load of barfy laundry is in the machine, and the escapist dreams are coming fast and furious about walking the streets of New York City by yourself with a camera, a sexy sundress, and kick ass wedge sandals.
Note: Whatever you do, don’t sit down. Just keep moving. Make some coffee. Perhaps eat some salty caramels. Remember the salve of cooking. And motherfucking get on it.
1. Fill a large pot with cold water. Add a handful of salt. Use your hand to swirl the water and dilute the salt. Lick your fingers. Keep adding salt until you taste the ocean
2. Plug your kids into the television.
3. Lean over the sink to peel potatoes. Say fuck fuck fuck fuck over and over again. Try to untangle depression from fatigue from clumsiness from failure. Remind yourself that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Stand up straight. Splash potatoes one at a time into the salty water. Slide pot onto the stove and crank the flame.
4. Bring your kids some ginger ale. Comment on how it’s their fourth day missing school and of pouring rain. Decide it’s very boring to talk about the weather. Try to make the conversation have more depth. Mention how hard it would be to be homeless in all this rain.
5. Feel tremendous relief that no one in your house has vomited within the past twelve hours. Knock on wood. Knock on your head.
6. Drain the potatoes. Splash boiling water on your hand. Acknowledge that until you get some sleep you should stay away from the garbage disposal and the car.
7. Press replay on your favorite One Eskimo song. Feel the guitar and the drums thud bounce fly all around your heart. Wonder who the lead singer is talking about when he sings you’ve been my queen for longer than you know. Slide down to the dirty floor. Blow away some onion skins and dog hair. Feel bummed that you’ve never climbed onto the back of a motorcycle or a horse and taken off into the sunset, arms wrapped around a body, ear pressed up to the back of a heart.
8. Jump to your feet as your son flies into the kitchen and asks mama so why is it that the homeless don’t have money and they don’t have food and they don’t have a house and I don’t understand why they can’t just get some money but I do understand that they’re lost I really do get that I do. Explain as best you can with words like society and mental illness and drugs and addiction and responsibility and neglect. Remember that your son is only four.
9. Simmer asparagus tips in chicken stock. Announce to the empty kitchen that you plan to make a soup of the remaining asparagus stalks once everyone in the house is well. Strain liquid into a mug and hand it to your daughter. Tell her to plug your nose and just get it down or I will have to take you to the hospital where they will probably stick you with a huge needle in order to feed you intravenously.
10. Wash your favorite plate. Slice, spread out, and salt potatoes. Drop cooked asparagus tips onto the potatoes as if you’re releasing Pick Up Sticks. Add heaping spoonfuls of shallot vinaigrette. Blop crème fraîche down all over everything. Wipe some off your chest, your eyelid, your cheek.
11. Look at the plate and know that something is missing. Wonder if anyone is still reading your neglected food blog. Chop spring onions. Curse your dull knife. Drizzle some olive oil. Remember that everything is better topped with a poached egg.
12. Pick up the camera with your right hand. Ignore the ringing phone until you realize it’s your husband. Secure the phone between your left ear and shoulder. Embarrass your husband with a vivid description of what you’re going to do to him in bed that night if you ever get your ass home from Los Angeles because oh my god I’m drowning here my love I am I really am.
13. Stop talking. Look through the viewfinder and focus on the front of the poached egg. Listen to your husband talk about his studio meeting. Note that the more activities you do at once, the more awake you feel. Trip out on your contentment.
14. Consider including wine in the photo. Admit how staged it always looks even though it’s oh so real.
15. Tell your husband to pause his story and yell down the hall to Bella that Dash is four and he needs to be allowed to be four and he still believes in magic and don’t ruin it for him just like we didn’t ruin it for you please Bella.
16. Puncture the egg with your fork. Watch the yolk slide down all over the potatoes. Take a photo. Think about how much you’d like to throw your husband against the wall and kiss him. Almost drop the camera. Notice your heart is racing. Take more photos. Take a bite. And another. Eat everything. Lick the plate.
Potato and Asparagus Salad with Crème Fraîche and Poached Eggs
Originally published in The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013)
(feeds 4 or so)
12 Yukon gold or German butterball potatoes
Lots of kosher salt
2 shallots, diced
1 clove garlic, bashed or microplaned or finely diced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon champagne or white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4-6 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chicken stock
10 asparagus spears trimmed and cut into 4 pieces each or 40 asparagus tips (save stalks for asparagus stock or soup)
2 teaspoons of any kind of white vinegar
3/4 cup crème fraîche
3 spring onion stems (or chives), thinly sliced
Fill a large pot 3/4 of the way up with cold water. Add several tablespoons salt. Peel potatoes and slide them into the water right away. Turn on high heat and bring up to a boil. Once water boils, turn down to a simmer. Potatoes are done when a paring knife slides in easily. If you’re not sure, just cut one open and taste. Drain potatoes in a colander. If they’re falling apart a bit remove them one at a time with a slotted spoon. Set aside to cool.
In a bowl, combine shallots and garlic. Cover with lemon juice and the champagne or white wine vinegar. Let sit for a few minutes. Whisk in Dijon mustard. Slowly whisk in half of the olive oil. Taste. This salad is best with a very tangy dressing. Add more olive oil if it’s too strong.
Bring chicken stock to a boil. Turn down to a simmer. Add asparagus tips. Cook very briefly (1-2 minutes depending on size). Taste one. Make sure there’s still some crunch left. Remove with slotted spoon and place on kitchen towel. Save broth for soup or lunch or sick kids.
Fill a big and wide pot of water for eggs and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn flame so low that there are no bubbles on the surface of the water. Add white vinegar and salt. Stir. Crack 1 egg into a bowl. Slide egg into water. Repeat with remaining eggs. I like the yolks very runny but I hate it when the white is still raw on top. The only way I know to test for doneness is to use a slotted spoon to pull an egg out of the water and touch the top to make sure it’s completely cooked. Slide egg onto a clean dishtowel or paper towel. Remove all the eggs the same way. It’s okay for them to sit for a few minutes. If you want, you can reheat the eggs in the hot water right before serving.
Slice potatoes and spread out in a single layer on a big plate or platter. Salt each slice. Spoon on shallot dressing. Scatter asparagus tips all over potatoes. Carefully (or not) blop crème fraîche all over the potatoes and asparagus. Add more salad dressing. Place eggs on top. Add a few sloshes of olive oil. Sprinkle spring onion slices all over. Serve (and eat) right away.
Phyllis Grant was a pastry cook at some fancy Manhattan restaurants before coming home to Berkeley to raise her kids and write about cooking with them on her blog, Dash and Bella. She writes a column for Food52 called “Cooking What I Want” and is working on a family food memoir to be published by Clarkson Potter in the fall of 2015. She lives in Berkeley.
Caroline M. Grant is editor-in-chief of website Literary Mama and associate director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She is co-editor of the anthology Mama Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She lives in San Francisco. Lisa Catherine Harper is the author of A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood and is adjunct professor of writing in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.